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Democracy and Drugs in Central America

by Donald J. Mabry, November, 1988

Thanks to Opus, Bill the Cat, and other denizens of Bloom County, it's not necessary to explain the economics of the drug trade nor the difficulties of drug interdiction policy. As they so aptly explained, overcoming the actions of the human ego is difficult. When I speak of ego in this context, I am including manifestations of it such as selfishness, self-indulgence, greed, and vanity.

The story of the drug trade, at the supply end or the demand end or both, is a story of human egotism but so, too, is the story of Central America and its occasional forays into democracy or what some people call democracy.

Not being a political scientist nor an expert on Central America, I will not pursue those comments directly. Instead, my comments are about the nature and extent of the drug trade in Central America and the apparent effects of that trade on the possibility of democracy in the region. Since the drug trade is illicit and, therefore, clandestine, accurate information is difficult to obtain. Thus, I am tentative in my comments.

Central American democracy is like a desert flower in a very parched land; fed by intermittent rainfall, it quickly blooms and dies. This is not true of Costa Rica and Belize, of course, and some would say it is not true of Nicaragua. For most of these countries, the military is the political force whether or not civilians are the titular heads of government. This has been true for many years and the drug trade has not caused the rise of military power. This is an important point to remember as we take a quick look at drugs and democracy in Central America.


Central American nations play three roles in the Latin American drug trade:

(1) They produce and export marijuana. Belize and Guatemala are the two most important.

(2) They serve as transshipment points for cocaine and marijuana from South America.

(3) Drug money is laundered in Panama.

The Central American drug trade is not new, of course. As Bill Walker points out in his Drug Control in the Americas, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Panama were transshipment points in the 1930s. In 1932-33, Honduras imported enough morphine to meets its scientific and medical needs for 100 years; in 1934, enough came in for another 72 years. It was sent to the U.S. via New Orleans and the U.S. Coast Guard had to spend a lot of money patrolling the southern coast of the region.

The region is ideally suited for smuggling activities. Flights from Colombia or the Bahamas can easily reach it, land and refuel, and then fly at low levels into isolated areas of the U.S. Local officials, civilian and military, in these poor nations are just as amenable to bribes or shares of the profits as are similar officials in the much richer United States. Military officers are often deeply involved in the trafficking. The military is the only public security force with the capability of eradicating crops and busting smuggling rings. Panama, because of its banking laws guaranteeing secrecy, is an ideal place through which to launder the many millions of dollars obtained by this illicit trade. U.S. policy interests in the region have focused on maintaining control of the Panama Canal and alternative canal routes and prevention of regimes hostile to the U.S. or powerful interests in the U.S., thus leaving wide latitude to thug dictators to do as they pleased. Since 1981, the U.S. has wanted to oust the Sandinistas in Nicaragua but has had to make special deals with Panama and Honduras in the process. Parts of these deals have apparently involved tolerance of the drug trade.

The rising U.S. appetite for cocaine and well-publicized cocaine violence and death within the U.S. made it more difficult for U.S. officials to ignore what was happening in Central America. The problem became, however, that as U.S. agents, usually from the Drug Enforcement Administration, pursued drug dealers and encouraged crop eradication programs, they risked embarrassing other branches of the U.S. government, which had a different interest in Central America. This interest was the overthrow of the Sandinista government through support of the Contras.

In Honduras, location of the principal Contra bases and a country into which the U.S. has poured many millions of dollars, the drug trade was small before 1986, the year Ramón Mata Ballesteros, a high profile cocaine dealer, returned home from Colombia. The U.S. wanted to extradite him for complicity in the murder of Enrique Camarena in Mexico, something that was possible under the terms of the U.S.-Colombian extradition treaty but not possible when he was a Honduran citizen in Honduras. Mata could not have returned home unless the Honduran military allowed it. We do not know why the military allowed it. We do know that Honduras soon became an important cocaine transshipment point (late in 1987, DEA seized 6 tons of cocaine which passed through Honduras). The Honduran military has been engaged in a variety of illegal activities and DEA officials are convinced that a number of officers were engaged in the lucrative cocaine trade. Mata became an embarrassment and a source of friction between the Honduran military and the U.S. government. Apparently with connivance on the part of the Honduran military, Mata was kidnapped from Honduras, taken to the Dominican Republic, loaded onto a plane, and arrested by the U.S. when he was in international airspace. Honduran nationalists burned the U.S. consulate in protest.

Cocaine entered the Honduran scene in another way, if periodicals and indicted criminals are to be believed. Evidence no doubt exists to clarify this story but it is unlikely that we will see it for years on the grounds of U.S. national security. The Arms Supermarket--the CIA-Mossad-Honduran military intelligence operation--stored weapons bound for the Contras in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Assertions are made that the purchase and the transport of these weapons was done, in part, by drug dealers. That is, some of the money came from the so-called Medellin cartel (who are laissez faire capitalists and thus opposed to leftist governments and who also may have hoped to curry favor with U.S. authorities). Drugs were flown to the U.S. and, on the return trip, arms to Honduras. These are the assertions of Richard Brenneke and of Jorge Morales, who also said he made the same arrangements for Costa Rica and El Salvador.

Panama and its dictator, General Antonio Manuel Noriega, are a special case. As Ambler Moss, U.S. ambassador to Panama (1978-82) puts it, U.S. interest in Panama has been, in descending order, the Canal, U.S. military bases, and democracy. With the Sandinista revolution, the military bases (the Southern Command) assumed additional importance. The Panama Canal Treaty stipulates that the Southern Command can only be used to defend the Canal. Noriega conveniently ignored how many soldiers and of what nationality are stationed and trained there. The Southern Command became an important part of the anti-Sandinista effort. Further, Noriega passed along intelligence information to the U.S. If we are to believe the Miami and Tampa grand jury indictments against him, he also engaged in drug trafficking and drug money laundering. If we are to believe Morales and other traffickers as well as former Panamanian Consul José Blandón, a Noriega opponent, the U.S. knew that Noriega was deeply involved in the drug business, that he was taking a cut from the traffic of drugs to the United States and of the money laundered through Panamanian-charted banks. On the other hand, he allowed Panamanian territory to be used to resupply the Contras and kept quiet about what was happening at Southern Command bases.

>From the U.S. standpoint, however, the problem with Noriega was that he was too greedy; he could be rented but not bought. He is also vicious. The 1985 murder of Dr. Spadafora, an outspoken critic of Noriega who charged the commander of the Panamanian Defense Forces with being a drug trafficker, angered many, especially when his beheaded body was thrown into Costa Rica. Many believed that Noriega ordered this atrocity. From a U.S. policy perspective, more important were the facts that Noriega allowed the KGB to open a field office in Panama and that he helped Cuba and Nicaragua evade the U.S. embargo against them. He aided the Sandinistas as well as the Contras. Some assert that he sold U.S. intelligence data to U.S. opponents.

Tired of Noriega's doings, the U.S. government obtained indictments against him in Miami and Tampa, the first time the U.S. formally charged the head of state of an ally with criminal charges. The U.S. also brought intermittent pressure to bear in its unsuccessful effort to oust Noriega. The general proved smarter than his opponents, however. He had made sure that officers of the Panamanian Defense Forces had a piece of the drug money action, just as the PDF has a piece of the legitimate business action in Panama. Within Panama, only the PDF can overthrow Noriega and its officers are not likely to do so in the near future. If the U.S. is willing to bring Noriega to the U.S. for trial, surely it would bring lesser officers as well. And, of course, Noriega wrapped himself in the Panamanian flag. No matter who one is or what one has done (or not done), wrapping oneself in the national flag is a great tactic.


As mentioned before, military establishments are the political arbiters in most Central American nations today, just as they have been for most of the region's history. This is true even though there are currently civilian presidents in most of these countries. The threat to democracy in such nations as Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Panama is the power of the military.

Democracy requires voluntary restraints on the human ego. Rules, be they statutes or customs, are the principal means by which a community restrains egotism. In a democratic society, the people are sovereign. They make the rules and obey them voluntarily. In democratic societies, law enforcement exists to deal with the inevitable deviants. Democracies work when their members respect each other enough to tolerate each other and to obey the laws they create. Democracies require social trust. Military governments are not based on popular sovereignty or social trust; after all, in those governments, it is the officers who are the principal voters.

The illicit drug trade and the lawlessness which must accompany it are a threat to democracy for they undermine social trust, foster egotism, and threaten the ability of the State to rule. Drug barons can and do become powers unto themselves. When those drug barons are military officers or allied to military officers, democracy has little chance.

Finally, the drug trade threatens democracy in Central America for a number of reasons. It mocks the laws. It produces large amounts of private violence. It cannot exist without the connivance of the military. It corrupts the military while also empowering the military with large sums of illicit money and additional control over civilians. Meeting at American University in June, 1988, fifty Latin American military officers, including the ministers of defense of Guatemala and Honduras, agreed that the military should not get involved in anti-drug campaigns because military involvement would strengthen the military vis-a-vis civilian government and make the military more autonomous.